Induction at the Vale

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on September 25, 2017 by telescoper

So here I am, at the Cardiff Vale Hotel. It’s quite swanky. Apparently the Juventus team stayed here immediately before the UEFA Champions League final in Cardiff this summer. They lost, so perhaps they enjoyed their stay too much before the game! The view from my window this morning wasn’t bad at all:

I’m here participating in an Induction event for our new STFC-funded Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT), which involves the Universities of Cardiff, Bristol and Swansea. This is coordinated by the Data Innovation Institute at Cardiff University and it covers  a wide range of data-intensive research in particle physics, astrophysics and cosmology carried on at the three member institutions. ‘Data-intensive’ here means involving very big data sets, very sophisticated analysis methods or high-performance computing,  or any combination of these.

Since this Centre for Doctoral Training is being coordinated by Cardiff University we got to organize this launch event, at which we get the new students (14 of them), supervisors and industrial partners together to introduce the programme we’ve got in store. Over the next two days we’ll have some lectures, networking sessions, team-building exercises and a `hackathon’ challenge.

Hopefully all this will start to bring the students from the three institutions together as a cohort with its own identity, so that the CDT functions as more than the sum of three separate components. That’s the plan anyway.

Anyway, they seem a friendly bunch and I think this is going to be quite a lot of fun though it will be rather busy. Although we’re booked into this hotel as a `conference package’, the hotel is rather large and most of the clientele seem to be here to play golf…

Oh, and if you think all this luxury is probably a waste of money then I should point (a) the Cardiff Value Hotel has given us a very good deal for the accommodation and conference facilities and (b) this is induction week for new undergraduates and other postgraduates at Cardiff University and it would have been hard to find rooms for this event there. The splendid isolation of this `neutral’ venue will hopefully help folk concentrate on the matters at hand, away from the hustle and bustle of the new student arrivals.


WNO Khovanshchina

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , on September 24, 2017 by telescoper

So, as promised, yesterday evening I took a stroll down to Cardiff Bay for the opening night of this run of Welsh National Opera’s production of Kovasnshchina. The walk proved a bit more eventful than anticipated because I blundered into the middle of some sort of police operation involving the pursuit of a suspect but I made it to the Wales Millennium Centre on time and relatively unruffled.

Khovanshchina (which roughly translates as `The Khovansky Affair’ or `The Khovansky Episode’) is based on historical events that took place in Moscow in the 1682. Prince Khovansky, at the head of his private army (the Strelsty) leads a rebellion against the government represented by Sofia, who is regent on behalf of her young brother Ivan and his half-brother Peter (destined to become Peter the Great) who has, with assistance from her lover Prince Golitsyn, restricted the power of the the Boyars (aristocracy). These rebels form an uneasy alliance with The Old Believers, who are opposed to religious reforms introduced by the Patriarch Nikon. The rebellion is crushed by Peter’s army. Khovansky is murdered, but the Streltsy, having been lined up to be executed, are spared by the young Tsar. Golitsyn is forced into exile. The Old Believers, on the other hand, convinced that the failure of the uprising means that the devil is taking over the world, opt for mass suicide.

Mussorgsky was inspired to write this Opera by the bicentenary of the birth of Peter the Great (who was born in 1672). He worked on it, off and on, composing the music and writing the libretto, from 1872 until his death in 1881 and which point it still wasn’t finished. His friend Nikllai Rimsky-Korsakov subsequently completed the work, and it is his version that is most frequently performed. This production, however, uses a different version, completed in 1959 by Dmitri Shostakovich and with the addition of the final scene – the immolation of the Old Believers – the music for which was composed by Igor Stravinsky. The compositional history of this piece is almost as complex as the historical events it depicts.

At a very basic level the message of Khovanshchina is “look how terrible everything was before Peter the Great”. None of the protagonists is a remotely sympathetic character, especially Khovansky himself who is an extremely unpleasant individual, as is his son, whom we first meet trying to force his attentions on a young German girl. Khovansky Senior arrives on the scene to stop him assaulting the girl, but only because he wants her for himself. They’re all charm, these Khovanskys.

Golitsyn seems at first like a good guy, but when a fortune teller forecasts doom and gloom he casually orders her to be murdered. The Old Believers just seem to be a group of religious maniacs. Peter the Great never actually appears on stage and neither does Sofia, a deliberate ploy to focus our attention on the undesirables in front of us. The story that unfolds is one full of horror and brutality, while hope waits in the wings, perhaps never to arrive.

This particular episode also serves to highlight the themes that recur elsewhere in Russian history, and indeed the history of any country that has a history, namely the conflicts between reason and superstition, between rich and poor, between East and West and, well, between War and Peace…

David Pountney’s design for  this production isn’t specific to the 17th century. The striking set, with its curious juxtaposition of abstract geometrical forms, owes much to the constructivist art that informed the iconography of the early Soviet era. Other elements of the design, such as the costumes of the serfs (grey) and the Old Believers (white), are more traditional. The Streltsy wear uniforms that look 20th century, but are a bright pink. This colour-coding is helpful, actually, given the complexities of the plot, and the fact that the stage is frequently crowded. The final apocalyptic suicide scene is not an immolation, but death by poison gas, administered by a steampunk contraption that descends from above the stage. These, and other devices, shift attention away from the specifics and emphasize the thematic universality of the piece.

Spread over five acts, and lasting about 3½ hours (including one interval), Khovanshchina is quite a long Opera but it doesn’t get bogged down because so much is happening musically, dramatically and visually.  It may not be the most comfortable viewing, but it’s a gripping story compelling realised. I certainly never felt bored, though I do wish I’d read a little more about the story beforehand as I got a bit confused in places.

With the exception of a few iffy moments by the French horns, the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera under the direction of Tomáš Hanus played excceedingly well, adding a sense of danger to the opening prelude that set the tone wonderfully. A special mention must be made of the Chorus of Welsh National Opera who were absolutely magnificent, showing off some of the sublime choral writing in this opera as well as provide lots of energy and colour to the crowd scenes.  It isn’t really fair to single out any of the principals, as this is really an ensemble piece, but I thought Robert Hayward was absolutely compelling.

There are two more performances in Cardiff but this piece goes on tour. Do go and see it if you can. It’s an enthralling experience.


Dawn over the Moscow River

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , on September 22, 2017 by telescoper

If the world doesn’t come to an end tomorrow, around 7pm I hope to be in my seat at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay for the start of Khovanschina performed by Welsh National Opera, it being the first night of their new season.

Khovanschina, composed by Modest Mussorgsky, is not a particular well-known opera but the lovely Prelude to Act I is performed fairly often as a concert piece with the title Dawn Over the Moscow River. Here it is, played in 1991 by the Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre conducted by Valery Gergiev:

The Autumnal Equinox

Posted in Biographical, Cricket with tags , , , , , on September 22, 2017 by telescoper

So here we are then. The Autumnal Equinox (in the Northern hemisphere) takes place this evening, at 21.02 BST (20.02 GMT) at which point the plane of Earth’s equator passes through the centre of the Sun’s disk. This is traditionally taken to be the end of summer. It was a lovely morning in Cardiff, sunny and warm. Looking back over the posts I’ve written at this time of year since I started blogging in 2008, it’s notable how many times we’ve had a period of good weather around the autumnal equinox. The local traditional name for this is the `Little Summer of St Michael’. Anyway, here’s am excerpt from the post I wrote in 2008 on this:

The weather is unsettling. It’s warm, but somehow the warmth doesn’t quite fill the air; somewhere inside it there’s a chill that reminds you that autumn is not far away.

I find this kind of weather a bit spooky because it always takes me back to the time when I left home to go to University, as thousands of fledgling students are about to do this year in their turn.

This morning I had some business to attend to near my home. In fact it was in an office in Temple Court on Cathedral Road. I hadn’t been there before and it was only when I got there that I realised that the building used to be a synagogue. Opened in 1897 this was built at the same time as the grand houses on Cathedral Road. It hasn’t been used as a synagogue for some time, and the building has been substantially extended at the rear, but it is still a Grade II listed building.

My little errand completed I decided to make the most of the weather by watching the morning’s play on the last day of the County Championship match between Glamorgan and Gloucestershire at the SSE Swalec Stadium in Sophia Gardens. Some playing was lost yesterday because of rain; the forecast had suggested a complete washout, but the rain cleared much earlier than predicted. Glamorgan had been all out for 442 in their first innings. Gloucestershire found batting pretty comfortable but lost a flurry of wickets on Thursday afternoon and ended up declaring on 399 for 8 after 110 overs to have a go at Glamorgan for 15 overs late on. They had an early success with the ball, removing Brown for 13, with the score on 15, but opener Nick Selman and Andrew Salter, promoted to No. 3, took them to the close. I watched them bat together all the way to lunch, as Glamorgan proceeded serenely to 154 for 1.

Here are the players going off for lunch:

The game seems to be drifting to a draw, the likelihood of which is increased even further by the fact that rain is forecast this afternoon, so it wasn’t the most exciting cricket I’ve ever watched, but it’s good to end the season with Glamorgan doing well. A sudden declaration with 40-50 overs left might give Glamorgan the chance of a win, but the pitch is very flat and I can’t see a result being forced. I’m pretty sure the plan is to give Glamorgan’s batsmen a chance to build up a bit of confidence for next season. I just checked the score, in fact, to find that Nick Selman has scored a century, which will do him a power of good!

Our new students arrive for `induction’ next week – including the new PhD students involved with our Centre for Doctoral Training who will be attending a Launch Event that starts on Sunday afternoon. I have a few last-minute jobs to do connected with that this afternoon so I’d better get on with them if I want to get finished so I can enjoy the first Amser Jazz Time of the new season!

Knitted Omnibus

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on September 21, 2017 by telescoper

The inestimable Miss Lemon, who occasionally operates under the pseudonym Dorothy Lamb, has sent me a picture of her latest knitting exploits, i.e. two buses in the livery of the Brighon & Hove Bus Company!

They add a whole new meaning to the term `bendy bus’!

To find out what inspired these contributions please see related the University of Sussex news item here.

Free Will in the Theory of Everything

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on September 21, 2017 by telescoper

There’s a very thoughtful and provocative paper on the arXiv by Gerard tHooft, who (jointly) won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1999. It’s well worth reading, even if you decide you don’t agree with him!

From what is known today about the elementary particles of matter, and the forces that control their behavior, it may be observed that still a host of obstacles must be overcome that are standing in the way of further progress of our understanding. Most researchers conclude that drastically new concepts must be investigated, new starting points are needed, older structures and theories, in spite of their successes, will have to be overthrown, and new, superintelligent questions will have to be asked and investigated. In short, they say that we shall need new physics. Here, we argue in a different manner. Today, no prototype, or toy model, of any so-called Theory of Everything exists, because the demands required of such a theory appear to be conflicting. The demands that we propose include locality, special and general relativity, together with a fundamental finiteness not only of the forces and amplitudes, but also of the set of Nature’s dynamical variables. We claim that the two remaining ingredients that we have today, Quantum Field Theory and General Relativity, indeed are coming a long way towards satisfying such elementary requirements. Putting everything together in a Grand Synthesis is like solving a gigantic puzzle. We argue that we need the correct analytical tools to solve this puzzle. Finally, it seems to be obvious that this solution will give room neither for “Divine Intervention”, nor for “Free Will”, an observation that, all by itself, can be used as a clue. We claim that this reflects on our understanding of the deeper logic underlying quantum mechanics.

The full paper can be downloaded here.

Song of Creation

Posted in Poetry with tags , on September 20, 2017 by telescoper

Then there was neither Aught nor Nought, no air nor sky beyond.
What covered all? Where rested all? In watery gulf profound?
Nor death was then, nor deathlessness, nor change of night and day.
That One breathed calmly, self-sustained; nought else beyond it lay.

Gloom hid in gloom existed first – one sea, eluding view.
That One, a void in chaos wrapt, by inward fervour grew.
Within it first arose desire, the primal germ of mind,
Which nothing with existence links, as sages searching find.

The kindling ray that shot across the dark and drear abyss-
Was it beneath? or high aloft? What bard can answer this?
There fecundating powers were found, and mighty forces strove-
A self-supporting mass beneath, and energy above.

Who knows, who ever told, from whence this vast creation rose?
No gods had then been born – who then can e’er the truth disclose?
Whence sprang this world, and whether framed by hand divine or no-
Its lord in heaven alone can tell, if even he can show.

Translated by John Muir from the original (anonymous) Sanskrit text of a hymn.